Friday, December 16, 2011

Review: 'Zazen' by Vanessa Veselka

Fire Sermon: Thoughts on Zazen by Vanessa Veselka (Red Lemonade, 2011)


 In her debut novel, Zazen, Vanessa Veselka catches the deeply unsettling atmosphere of the North American urban drosscape better than almost any of her contemporaries I can think of. In an edgy, lyrical prose and dialog that is smart and sharp she gives us a brilliantly accurate vision of both the U.S. mainstream and its countercultural other swirling in that shared predicament we call late capitalism. And indeed, the hour is very late: in Veselka’s novel ecological and economic disaster hover in the wings; the religion of consumer ecstasy raises its gigantic cathedrals on every available space; our distant wars flourish like well-fed plants; the violent police state expands inexorably; the TVs are on all the time.
 What is to be done in this world where holding on to your humanity and individuality is a constant struggle, perhaps a losing battle? It is this question that preoccupies several of the novel’s characters and positively haunts the main character, Della, through whom we wander this teetering place and time.
 Della is a remarkable fictional creation.  In her late 20s, with an advanced degree in paleontology from Davis, she finds herself waitressing at Rise Up Singing, a flexibly-vegan restaurant, and living temporarily with her brother, Credence, and his partner, Annette, who is pregnant with twins.
 Della is a human seismograph, uncannily sensitive to the world’s pain and injustices. At Davis she had almost been undone by how deeply she felt for the child victims of a terrorist attack on a Russian school; now, back in the familiar city of her earlier years, back within the orbit of her left wing parents and her activist brother, she is driven by a desire to understand the whole mess, to do something. After all, “[A]nybody with any sense knows what’s coming”. Bombs start going off in the city.
 The people around Della mostly know something of what’s coming, and react in a variety of ways. Some are getting out, fleeing to Mexico, Bali, or, like her girlfriend Jimmy, to Honduras; some pour their energies and organizational skills into sex parties and noise bands; some, like Credence, persist in the thankless tasks of community organizing and consciousness raising; and some, like her new friend Tamara from an eco-community called The Farm, may have darker designs.
 Della is pulled in all these directions, and Veselka does an amazing  job of making her confusion and anguish credible and of engaging our sympathy  for her contradictory impulses.  However unique,quirky, and damaged she is, there is a Della in “anyone with sense”, anyone who can look squarely in the face of what Yeats called “this preposterous pig of a world”.  And yet, most wonderfully, Veselka refuses to let this novel rest in in a faddish weltschmerz. Della has the ability to draw us into a perspective which might, just might, give us a chance at a crystalline clarity after we’ve philosophized with a geology hammer,  a chance at loving the world’s improbable beauty  after all our rage.
 There are two intertwining sets of ideas and images in this novel which prise open a door to authentic hope. The first comes from paleontology, the second from Buddhism, and they are the occasion of Veselka’s most exquisite writing and compelling thinking. They are connected by the concept of Deep Time, the vast aeons of earth history in comparison to which the span of human civilizations, never mind a single human life, is almost nothing:
Out of a desire to understand, I began collecting maps and putting them on the walls. Gift shop maps with sea monsters on them and beveled, unfamiliar coastlines, cold war maps with the Soviet Menace spreading like leprosy. Pink East Germany. Red China. Maps of Pangaea and Gondwanaland from back before the seams pulled apart when we were still all one big continent—Deep Time, where countries turn to silt, silt turns to stone and we can now tell time by comparing the rates of nations collapsing—Biostratigraphy? Patriastratigraphy? Following the law of superposition, one thing always follows another: map of the Trail of Tears, bike map, subway map, and one I drew when I was twelve and wrote “Della’s world” in scented marker at the top. Historical, geological, topographical, ideological and imaginary. Sitting in Credence’s attic I tried to figure out if culture was just geology. Maybe Rwanda was caused by mountain building. And the Russo-Japanese War by glacial till. Maybe you need pirated rivers in the headlands before you can have a Paris Commune. (p.4)
DeepTime, a sense of which is integral to Buddhism, might, however, be redeemed, made humanly relevant  by compassion. The Buddha in his ‘Fire Sermon’ declared that the whole world is endlessly burning, ablaze in the fires of passion, aversion, delusion and suffering. Recognizing this fire is the first step on the path to liberation from aeons of suffering,  it is a wisdom that generates compassion for all sentient beings. Della is obsessed by the images of people who set themselves on fire in terrible protest at the delusion driving injustice. She collects pictures of self-immolators, eyewitness accounts of their immolation, makes a map identifying the places where they go up in flames:

 I found a picture online of a man setting himself on fire. It didn’t say where he was or what he was protesting. Next to his leg was a gas can. He must have just dropped the match because I could still see his clothes. His arms were raised and flailing. I thought of Buddhists who can sit, quiet as wellwater, and burn like candles, like in that famous photo where the Zen monk is sitting cross-legged on fire in the middle of an intersection while cars drive past and people watch. Everything near him is blurry, the cars, the people, because they’re moving. But he’s not. He is absolutely sharp because he is absolutely still. Every detail of his robe, his eyelids and the oil from the smoke is absolutely clear. (p.5)
 Della’s one place of being centered is a yoga studio, however much she might turn her acid wit on some of her neighbors on their mats. Through Della we begin to see the poin of the Zen quip “Don’t just do something, sit there!”:

She seated herself and took several deep breaths.
“Breathing out the day as we’ve known it until now and creating space for something new to arise. I invite you to let go of the expectations you came with and open to the experience of your body on the mat. Imagine a golden light coming in through the crown of your head with each breath, drawing it deeper into you and letting it go on the out breath.”
My shoulders quivered. I saw Credence sitting in a field surrounded by katydids. They looked like leaves but when I ran over to him they all flew away. I thought this must be how it feels to speak in tongues. Right before, when no one knew you were about to.
“Letting it fill up each place that speaks to you.”
Like abandoned airfields broken by weeds and baking in the sun.
“And bring special attention to those areas that may need noticing. Your hips, or your belly, or maybe a part of you that needs forgiving, that part of you that needs gentleness. And create a space for that gentleness to come in with your breath.”
Mom used to say you have to look sadness right in the eye but I’m done with that. My body came alive. My fingers tingled and I could taste the salt in the air. I held my arm up and where once a sharp outline delineated me from the rest of the world there was a gradation. I was still myself, but my edges faded and when I moved I felt the Black Ocean give. (p. 38 -39)
 Sitting there doesn’t mean drifting into a brief moment of narcissistic bliss, or a higher form of existential paralysis. For Della it opens the possiblilty of connection, of community, of forgiveness, of compassion for the brokenness of us all.
 In such a political novel as Zazen it would be remiss of me not to comment on its filiations with some contemporary political philosophy. Veselka critiques so many of the ways people attempt to evade “the system”, the ways some people contest its shallow definitions  of goodness, sustainability, happiness, beauty and community, that one might wonder if she leaves us with any reasons for political action at all, or should we retreat into a kind of personal no-go area, in the system but not of it?
 I would argue that far from leaving us in the lurch, Zazen opens up ways of thinking about ourselves as political beings which are deep calls to action, to an ethic of boundless compassion, to a spiritual agility that can outmaneuver the dehumanizing forces around us. The world of Zazen illustrates what Giorgio Agamben calls “the state of exception” where the rule of law is suspended and special laws are enacted which undermine democratic institutions.  Agamben characterizes the USA as having instituted a global state of exception with its war on terror; with this state of exception “the juridico-political system becomes a machine which may at any moment turn lethal”; it is “leading the West to a global civil war”. For Agamben there are no quick and easily identifiable solutions to this dangerous impasse, no list of tasks, no apocalyptic moment precipitating “the” revolution. And yet, he writes, “the absolutely desperate state of affairs in the society in which I live fills me with hope.” Why? Because “[t]here is something that humans are and have to be, but this something is not an essence nor properly a thing: it is the fact of one’s own existence as possibility or potentiality”. The coming community is now and tomorrow.
 Della would understand:
Annette says I’m too hard on the world, that I only see one side.
Grace says I’m afraid of my own longing.
I looked around at the smoke and people. I couldn’t find any hate in me anywhere. The world is a violent child none of us will get to see grow up.
I decided to love it anyway. (p.256 -257)


This astonishing novel might make you love the world even more and yourself even less.

(c) Ger Killeen